When Facebook officially announced that it would be using high altitude drones as part of its bid to bring internet access to parts of the world without terrestrial connections, it was inevitable that there would be comparisons with Google’s Project Loon.
If Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg is to be believed though, his multifaceted plan (which includes drones and low earth orbit satellites) is much more viable than Google’s high altitude balloons.
In part that’s because, as Zuckerberg points out in a detailed treatise on the matter, different areas around the globe require different levels of connectivity:
In dense urban areas, greater network capacity is needed to serve a larger population. That means we need to build cell towers, small cells or a big network of wi-fi access points. But in the less urban and less connected markets, there are also fewer people distributed over a wider area. Deploying other infrastructure solutions like satellites might be more efficient and cost-effective.
That doesn’t really apply specifically to the solar-powered drones Facebook’s investing in though. Their advantages, Zuckerberg says, lie in the fact that they can more easily meet the constraints brought about by trying to get the world online.
Any craft aiming to achieve this needs to be able to:
- Fly as close to the ground as possible in order to maximize signal strength.
- Fly at a high enough altitude where the wind is not very strong in order to maximize
- Fly outside of regulated airspace for safety and quick deployment.
Zuckerberg reckons drones can do all those things pretty easily. Moreover, he says, it’s important to be able to “control the location of these aircraft, unlike balloons”. While he doesn’t mention Project Loon directly, it’s pretty obvious what the Facebook boss is alluding to with that one.
Based on these constraints and others, the social networking tycoon says, “drones operating at 65 000 feet are ideal”:
At this altitude, a drone can broadcast a powerful signal that covers a city-sized area of territory with a medium population density. This is also close to the lowest altitude for unregulated airspace, and a layer in the atmosphere that has very stable weather conditions and low wind speeds. This means an aircraft can easily cruise and conserve power, while generating power through its solar panels during the day to store in its batteries for overnight use.
His hoodiedness also reckons that drones have more endurance than balloons and, because they can be controlled, could easily be flown back to earth for maintenance.
Ultimately then, it seems to about cost do deploy versus cost to run. Google’s already running trials with Project Loon — as things go, the kind of balloons being used aren’t exactly pricey to get up in the air.
That said, Zuckerberg does appear to have a point, especially if the number of drones Facebook and Internet.org intend sending up is dramatically than the number of balloons Google wants to float.